Monday, September 28, 2009

Separation of Church (or Mosque) and Retail

A Muslim teenager claims in a federal lawsuit that she was denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store at a Tulsa mall because she wore a head scarf. The manager of the store apparently told the teen that her Hijab (head scarf) violated the company's "Look" policy. After reading the details of the case, I felt compelled to take the retailer's side in that issue.

Before I get accused of Islamophobia, hear me out. I am all for women wearing the hijab if indeed it is their personal decision. I was also outraged by France's decision to crack down on women who wore the hijab simply because, again, it is an issue of choice. It's a bad choice, in my humble opinion, but nevertheless it is their right.

That said, the line needs to be drawn when those decisions affect others... businesses included. Companies such as Abercrombie and Fitch have spent years and millions of dollars trying to build a particular image of their brand. That brand, or look if you prefer, extends to all consumer touch points, and in particular, their retail outlets. If an employee's appearance is not in line with the brand, that would result in loss of business. And it is not just a religious issue, but I'm sure other attributes apply here too. An old man working at "Forever 21" or "Victoria's Secret"? It is fair? probably not, but if you don't like it, you don't have to shop there...I have yet to taste them wings at Hooters

I have to wonder why, in the first place,would a religious person, such as this young lady, apply for a job at A&E, a company that is famous for its hedonistic image? does she really want to be surrounded by loud techno music and images of semi naked teens all day?

Again, I am all for women (and men) embracing and displaying their religious choices, that's what freedom is all about. But you can't have your cake and eat it too... if you choose a more religious orthodox life, than don't expect the world to bend over and accommodate your needs especially when they are not in line with established goals, business or otherwise.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Match Towards Normalization?

For all the negative press Al Jazeera gets in US circles, little attention is given to the recent news about the network's plans to carry Israeli sports on their sister network: Al Jazeera Sports.

A match of the European Champions League that has the Israelis playing Munich will be broadcast, leading the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth to suggest that a “new Middle East” has started to emerge.

Note that is not the first attempt by an Arabic network to cover Israeli teams, Nile Sport, the Egyptian government run network did feature a volley ball game about a year ago between an Israeli team and an Egyptian one. However, that ended in a mess as the Egyptian team captain tore up an Israeli flag in front of cheering crowds.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Transgender belly dancer helps launch Arab gay initiative in Sweden

Dressed in a flashy black belly-dancing outfit, Nancy is a hobby transgender dancer from Iraq, ready to take to the stage with full make-up and skinny high heels. She is preparing to entertain more than 200 other Arab gays, lesbians and transgender people in Stockholm, Sweden.

The setting is the Stockholm headquarters of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (RFSL). The occasion is the launch of Arab Initiative, the first Arab LGBT rights group in Europe.

Nancy has been in Sweden six years now. She lives with her Iraqi family in a Stockholm suburb and hides her preferred gender identity and hobby from her family.

“I was a hobby trans even back in Iraq. I believe most of my friends back then were bisexuals, they just refused to admit it, even if I had a relationship with them,” Nancy says, as she keeps watch of the entrance to the RFSL party premises.

She lets a fellow Iraqi in, and kisses him on both cheeks. Turning around, Nancy says her family would never accept her lifestyle and explains how she has to stay out with other Iraqi friends when she’s in town dressed up as the person she prefers to be.

“However, people here are more open to accepting a transgender belly dancer than in the Middle East.”

Ali, who started the Arab Initiative, takes some time off from serving alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to members and their friends to speak about the purpose of the organization.

“Our aim is to create new bridges between European and Arab cultures, spread information about the Arab world in Sweden, support LGBT people with an Arabic background, and hopefully to bring more tolerance and understanding of their issues and defend their rights in Sweden and abroad,” he says.

“We as Arabs are discriminated against in general as an immigrant group, and then we are discriminated against again amongst our own minority for being gay,” he adds.

Ali and his peers have received funding from the European Union, which supports several LGBT organizations for immigrant minorities around Europe.

Since its establishment last May, the Arab Initiative has held parties, partaken in two Pride festivals, arranged three film showings, and four seminars.

“We have been making connections with LGBT groups in the Middle East, promoting ourselves locally through word of mouth, and standing up for LGBT rights against media producers who portray this particular group in a negative way.”

Ali adds that it is not a political organization, but mostly a place for Arab LGBT people to find support and meet their peers.

Karin Båge, head of RFSL in Stockholm, says that her group was contacted by the Arab Initiative. RFSL quickly gave the group full access to its premises, skills, and contacts.

The difficulties faced by gays in Iraq was brought into sharp relief this week as Human Rights Watched published details of a murderous militia-led campaign against homosexuals in the Middle Eastern country. In response, RFSL called on the Swedish government to halt all deportations to Iraq of people who have sought asylum on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.

"We urge Sweden to investigate the possibility of evacuating homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people who are at risk of being subjected to 'sexual cleansing'," RFSL chairperson Sören Juvas wrote in a press release on Monday.

Sa’ad Ibrahim, 37, is an Iraqi citizen who was granted asylum last May after being threatened with death due to his sexual orientation.

“One day in 2006, I received a call between 8 and 9 in the evening when I had arrived home from work. A friend of mine told me that another friend of ours had disappeared. So we asked around and after ten days we found out that his dismembered body had been found. Three of my friends were killed this way. I am the only one alive in my previous circle of friends,” Sa’ad tells The Local.

He had previously received written threats in his ladies’ shoe shop in a conservative Shiite district of Baghdad, where he was told he was a “fag” and that “God hates fags."

“Around 9.30 to 10 at night there were six people asking about me around the corner. I got the message to leave before they made it to my shop: I escaped through the back door and left everything behind me. I went far away to my uncle’s place where I stayed for the next five months. Every day I would imagine myself torn to pieces.”

He made his way to Sweden through a smuggling network, using up all the money he had managed to gather. When he came to Sweden he was devastated and lonely, he says.

“Now I am very happy because here I am able to mingle and mix with all sorts of people. I met an Iranian man who became my boyfriend. I fell in love with him, as he took me to the Pride festival, which turned my life around 180 degrees. I was totally amazed by the energy of the festival.”

Meanwhile, it was time for Nancy to mount the stage and wow the crowd with her belly dancing shakes to Arabic music. Swedes, Arabs, Africans and people of other ethnicities, men and women, straight and gay, gathered around the stage and clapped to the rhythm – a sight unseen in any Arab country.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

اطلاق كتيّب "احبهم...و لكن

قامت جمعية العناية الصحية وجمعية "حلم" بالتنسيق مع التحالف العالمي لمكافحة السيدا وفي إطار برنامج التوعية لفئة الرجال ذوي العلاقات الجنسية مع الرجال ...بإنتاج دليل "احبهم... ولكن

وقد تمّ اطلاق هذا الدليل، الذي يتوجه إلى الأهل الذين لديهم ابناء مثليين او مثليات الجنس ليزوّدهم بالمعلومات العلمية ويناقش المواقف الأفضل للتعامل مع هذا الواقع، خلال لقاء جمع ممثلين عن منظمات الأمم المتحدة ومن الوزرات المعنية ومن المؤسسات الاجتماعية والصحية التي تهتم بالشباب كما وجمع اللقاء أختصاصيين في مجال علم النفس والعمل الإجتماعي مع عدد من الاهل ومن المهتمين بموضوع المثلية الجنسية وذلك في فندق بادوفا سن الفيل صباح الثلاثاء 15 ايلول 2009

وتضمّن اللقاء نقاشات عن المثلية الجنسية، من حيث الواقع والتحديات، اضافةً الى التطرق للدليل من ناحية انتاجه ومحتوياته وكيفية استخدامه ووضع خطة مستقبلية بهدف ايصاله الى المعنيين

Beirut: City Of Projected Fantasies

By Diamond Walid

Diamond Walid is the pen-name of a Lebanese-Croatian TV producer and writer, based in Beirut

Beirut has been labelled the Paris, sometimes the Switzerland, of the Middle East. According to one recent New York Times article, it is now the region's Provincetown (the Cape Cod resort favoured by gay visitors). This ever-changing city seems to have become a mirror where people project their own fantasies.

Comparing Beirut with another city, whether Paris, Rome or Provincetown is a denial of its uniqueness. Beirut's gay culture is also unique and specific. As a gay man who has lived in the city for more than 30 years, I know that notions such as "gay", "straight", "public displays of affection" and "homophobia" can take on completely different forms and meanings in this part of the world. Yet there was no mention of these nuances in the New York Times article, obviously built on a series of denials.

"When I go out from Bardo [a gay-friendly restaurant] I always feel at ease hugging my friends – of course in a decent way – in front of the police. This is the kind of change I am talking about," Raed is quoted as saying. No mention of the fact that Lebanon, like all countries of the region, is a place where men often touch, kiss and hold each other's hands in public, whether gay, straight, policemen or not (whereas in New York, holding hands can apparently cost you your life). Or the fact that Lebanese heterosexual couples do not necessarily show more public affection than gay ones, also for reasons of "decency". If any "change" has recently occurred, it is only in the fantasies of some.

Reading this article, it seems as though gay culture in Lebanon was non-existent until the clubs it mentions opened or the Mr Bear Arabia election took place. In reality, one could go back to the Phoenicians to find same-sex relations an integral part of local culture. In more recent years, and even during the civil war (1975-90), gay men and women have gathered and partied in many public places, more or less visible but nonetheless vibrant.

The author not only denies local gay culture its history, but also its real space. Most of the venues cited in the article are hangouts for the Beiruti moneyed élite. In some, you will not be admitted if you don't come with an expensive car or wear certain fashion brands. Thankfully, the vast majority of the Lebanese don't belong to this obnoxious crowd. The less affluent gay population meets in different places, doesn't talk about its escapades in the Marais or Soho, doesn't always speak English or French or watch Sex and the City. In fact, it seems to have its own world, much larger and more open than the one described in the article.

The story of Paradise Beach is a telling example. This large public beach in the city of Byblos was very popular with working-class gay men from different cities and religions. A colourful place where gay men mingled and flirted more freely than elsewhere. Until the day the beach was privatised and turned into a luxury resort, with a strict admittance policy. However, a small strip of land was still left unsold and frequented by the working-class gays. The sight was amusing: the resort's stiff and bourgeois crowds – gay and straight alike – eyeing with utter shock their flamboyant neighbours. Today there are no more public gay beaches left in Lebanon.

The article also denies other Arab countries their own gay cultures. Many western journalists sum up Arab gay realities with sentences like: "Saudi Arabia: homosexuality punishable by death", "Iraq: gay men killed." Full stop. But gay men are also killed in "civilised" western countries. While homophobia is certainly a problem in Arab countries, like anywhere else, it never overshadows the thriving and lively local gay cultures. Yet no one talks about these cultures. "Cairo: bad", "Damascus: bad", we're told by Ricardo, the Spaniard in the article. Even Dubya and his "Axis of Evil" would envy such eloquence.

How ironic that many Lebanese gay men, including myself, actually feel more comfortable in places like Damascus or Amman and go there often in order to escape the Beiruti agitation. There might be no Kylie Minogue nights there, but on the other hand there is a lot less snobbery and less fuss about homosexuality. My friend Ali recently went to Jordan to be wedded to his boyfriend by a Muslim cleric and then spent his honeymoon in Damascus. The advantage of such trips also comes in finding an anonymity one is denied at home.

But even Amman seems to have its "globalised" gay crowd. Watching Ugly Betty and wearing D&G is what gay culture is about, these people seem to say, along with the NYT article and many gay men across the global village. I can still remember how discovering Steven, the gay character in Dynasty, during my childhood in the 1980s, opened a whole new perspective for me. It is another matter altogether to equate this mass consumption with gay culture, or even with gay rights advocacy. Just as Beirut's old neighbourhoods are being gentrified, its "superb architecture" (sic) being torn down to make way for soulless, surveillance-camera-equipped skyscrapers, its local gay culture is facing the challenge of McDonaldisation.

How long before writers start describing Beirut as a new Bangkok – rather than a Provincetown?Will sex tourism advance its population's gay rights or social wellbeing? In the meantime, Beirut is certainly turning back into the playground of multinational companies, regional interests and greedy entrepreneurs ("I can see a future for us here", one businessman says in the article).

The NYT article falls into the category of the infomercial, tailor-made for a certain clientele, and it has every right to. However, it is typical of much reporting about the Arab world, perpetuating tired stereotypes: Arabs are homophobes, except for the "westernised" ones, Arabs are "sexy savages". In doing so, not only is it extending the cultural gap further, but it is also exposing a much wider divide: the one between the haves and the have-nots.